Few would disagree that if a man pinches women’s asses in public, he is guilty of sexual harassment.
You’d also be hard-pressed to find someone who would condone rubbing a chili pepper on a woman’s tampon before she inserts it. And if a man were to convince his girlfriend that her child was seriously injured when the child was really fine, most people wouldn’t hesitate to call him a sociopath.
But when men engage in this behavior, film it, and post it online, they can disguise blatant acts of abuse as pranks.
The latest entry in this regrettably popular trend came Monday, when British social media personality Brad Holmes published a video on his Facebook page of his girlfriend in pain, flushing her vagina out with water after she unknowingly used a tampon that he had coated with chili pepper. The view count is 2.6 million and counting.
When it comes to harming women as a form of online entertainment, Holmes is walking in well-worn tracks. In 2014, British YouTuber Sam Pepper filmed himself pinching women on the street while his arms appeared to be hidden in a sweatshirt. YouTube removed the video after a public outcry in 2014, but copies of it live on. Shortly after the video was posted, multiple women from Pepper’s past accused him of sexual harassment and rape.
Later in 2014, popular YouTube prankster Roman Atwood pretended to throw his child off a balcony in front of his girlfriend Brittney when, in fact, the child was safe upstairs. He called the video “Killing My Own Kid PRANK!!” As of this writing, it has more than 44 million views. He pretended to kill his child in front of Brittney again in 2015, this time in a staged ATV explosion.
These videos, like so many in this genre, have something in common: After the “joke” is revealed, Pepper, Atwood, and Holmes all laugh while their female victims are visibly upset.
In Pepper’s prank, one woman he harasses can be heard repeatedly saying “I don’t like that” while he giggles uncontrollably. At the end of Atwood’s child-chucking prank, Brittney yells, “I fucking hate you,” kicking him away from her and shouting that his prank crossed the line. Atwood smiles at her, protesting that “it’s just a little joke.” And when Holmes’s girlfriend complains that her vagina is “on fire,” he laughs, keeping his camera trained on her until she angrily slams the door in his face.
Holmes has gone on to publicly defend his prank on Twitter, writing that he has “no shame.” But it’s not a lack of shame that’s the problem—it’s a lack of decency and, ultimately, of respect for women.
But pranks performed for a large social media following are even worse, with the online culture around them descending deeper into misogyny the longer they are permitted to proliferate. At their core is a simple but self-perpetuating problem: Most online pranksters are men, too many of whom are rewarded by their online followers with waves of traffic—and, therefore, money—for shocking, deceiving, and sometimes overtly harming women.
If you can think of a scenario that would cause emotional distress to women, men on YouTube have already done it under the guise of a “prank” or “social experiment.” Making women believe their boyfriends are cheating on them? BAHMLounge pranksters did it last week with the help of a sex doll. Trying to abduct teenage girls in a white van? Coby Persin did it last year, got 44 million views, and passed it off as a warning to parents. He tried it again with teenage boys, but only got half as many views.
Girlfriends of social media pranksters are in a particularly unenviable position. There are YouTubers who have duct-taped their girlfriend into bed, who have falsely come out as gay to their girlfriend, who have faked sex dreams about their girlfriend’s mom, who have broken up with their girlfriends as a joke, and who have pretended to cut off their girlfriend’s hair.
It only gets darker from there. Home invasion pranks with female victims have received millions of YouTube views. Some, like SanFrezco’s 2014 prank, are indistinguishable from a snuff film. It’s often impossible to tell whether the victim’s reactions are real or whether the scene has been scripted in advance, but either way the pranks get a palpable audience response.
It is true that men prank each other on YouTube. Guy-on-guy pranks can be extremely cruel, too, as we learned last November, when Sam Pepper posted a video in which he apparently kidnaps his friend Sam Golbach, ties him up in a chair on an L.A. rooftop, and then pretends to shoot Sam’s best friend Colby while Sam watches.
And yes, some women do prank men. In fact, the popular PrankVsPrank YouTube channel featured a straight couple named Jesse and Jeana, who relentlessly pranked each other. Measured by view counts on their videos, however, it is clear that their audience is a bit hungrier for videos in which Jeana is the victim. Four of the top five pranks are videos in which Jeana is surreptitiously fed a hot pepper, frightened with a spider, convinced that Jesse is cheating, and made to believe that her cat fell out of a window. The couple broke up last week.
Even as the sexism of YouTube prank subculture has become apparent to the point of being obvious, YouTube itself has been reticent to address it. Public outrage—and threats from Anonymous—have been far more effective at controlling the content of prank videos than the sites on which they are hosted. As The Daily Dot’s Audra Schroeder observed, this may be because prank videos tend to be profitable for everyone involved.
“In a perfect world, banning prank and pickup channels from YouTube would be an ideal solution, but it’s tricky,” she wrote. “Those subscribers and clicks make ad money for YouTube, and those channels often get brand endorsements.”
In a New York Times report last week, YouTube distanced itself from the actions that pranksters take in order to produce their videos. “Prank videos have been part of the online video culture from the very beginning,” a spokesperson said, acknowledging that the company has community guidelines but being careful to note that it has “limited visibility or control over the actions people take when off our platform.”
Facebook has yet to take down Holmes’s tampon video, even as commenters tell him that he went “too far” and could have seriously harmed his girlfriend. His only response to their justifiable outrage is, of course, more laughter and a bad vagina pun.
“Some of your comments are Fanny as fuck,” he wrote.
Update 5/25/16 10:30 AM: On Wednesday, Brad Holmes announced that he had deleted the “Hot Vagina” video from his Facebook page, writing that he “overstepped the mark when it comes to a prank video.”
“I don’t want anyone else to attempt that video / prank because it's an utter stupid thing to do and I sincerely apologize if anyone was offended by the clip,” he wrote. “I hold my hands up. I got it wrong.”